Theatrewack likes to reinvent classic dramatic texts, and in this case were inspired by the garden behind the Tiny Theatre to create a promenade production of this little-performed Restoration Comedy, The Rover. The women are played by men, and the men played by women, all except for Don Pedro, who is performed by a sock puppet manipulated by whichever actor that is not needed elsewhere. The parts are played with enthusiasm and a good degree of irreverence.
So, the basic story – but the sock puppet helpfully keeps you on track – is that of two sisters who want to marry for love. Their brother Don Pedro is more interested in maintaining the family wealth, so Florinda is betrothed to a wealthy old man and Helena is set for the nunnery. Florinda is played as virtuous, straight-backed and prim by Mark Oughton. Helena has more wit. Anyone who has thought of Andrew Parker as a courteous, rather brainy, playwright will see a whole other side of him here. Clad in a tiny black dress, a wicked smile and a good deal of body hair, he relishes his role as Helena – the sister who is not letting a religious career get in the way of a good sex life, in or out of the convent walls.
Florinda’s wedding day is drawing near, but carnival time offers an opportunity for them and their equally frustrated maid to sneak out in disguise in search of love. Florinda’s love has a face, that of the handsome and dashing Colonel Belvile; Helena is open to anyone, and she finds her match in Captain Willmore, a naval captain, with as much a sexual appetite as your average sailor on shore leave in Naples. For it is not just Helena that he seduces that night, but Angelica Bianca, the name of an exceedingly expensive courtesan who he has persuaded by exchanging oaths of passionate love to give him a freebie.
Aphra Behn was a royalist and a spy, both rather dangerous things to be, and turned to writing for money and she certainly has no illusions about life – what follows is essentially a sexual farce with disguises and drunkenness and confusions; until in the end, Don Pedro, exhausted trying to safeguard his sisters’ virginity, is happy for them to marry anyone, however rakish, unfaithful and poor – though whether the men would marry the girls if they were rakish, unfaithful and poor is a moot point. Hurrah for love.
The plot is quite convoluted but not ridiculously so, no more so than Shakespeare, but it is quite confusing here – perhaps because of the cross-casting, perhaps because it is performed in the Tiny Theatre, using the resident furniture which distracts us from the liminal reality of the play, as do the costumes of different periods and styles – the sisters are in modern dress, but the men and Angelica are in period costume, or perhaps because the actors stumbled a little over their words and still seemed to be finding the detail, and all the jokes, in their performances; nevertheless, Michaela Spratt entertains as the roguish Wilmore, as does Parker as an equally roguish Helena, and Courtney Eggleton is convincing as the vengeful Blunt. Accepting James Crompton as the leading beauty of the day is a bit trickier.
The promenade aspect is quite fun, and shows off the lovely garden, however it does require actors to instruct the audience where to go next, which requires some social interaction – ‘after you’, ‘can you see?’ - consequently delaying the action and, again, takes the spectator out of the world of the play. If perhaps these areas had been dressed and lit more evocatively, the promenade aspect may have been more effective. In fact, the director has asked a lot of his actors: they are very exposed, not only are the house lights always up but they are very close to the audience. At the beginning, they must banter with the audience as they come in. The audience, awkwardly, didn’t know if the show had started or not. It rather gave the first night a feel of an open rehearsal.
The play was a huge hit when first performed 350 years ago and it is savagely anti-Puritan and pro-romantic. I can see how it might have been a hoot, particularly when you know the real-life people behind the characters, but this production which is diverting more than hilarious, doesn’t aim at either period veracity or have a strong enough idea behind the adaption to make it very relevant to modern audiences - beyond reminding girls that in life you may be better off getting out there and having fun than sitting at home moping and waiting for him to call.
Tiny Theatre at Garnet Station until 19 December